The Boks have lost two strong players ahead of the clash with the All Blacks on Saturday, and it’s definitely placed more pressure on Heyneke Meyer to get the best out of the remaining players. But, says KEN BORLAND, Meyer and the team doctor have made some good long-term choices.
Coach Heyneke Meyer likes to talk about the Springbok team as being a family, and there was sadness in camp on Monday when two players left the squad ahead of the Rugby Championship finale against the All Blacks at Soccer City on Saturday.
While Jacques Potgieter, who has an abdominal strain, was a fringe player, Francois Steyn is a key figure in the team, having played 53 Tests despite being just 25 years old, and a senior player.
But his departure from the squad to have ankle surgery is undoubtedly in the long-term interests of both the team and the player.
"Frans has quite a few loose pieces of bone in his ankle and every now and then one of them gets lodged in the joint, causing him excruciating pain. As a long-term solution, we're sending him for surgery to have it cleaned out on Wednesday. Unfortunately that means he will be out for three months and he will miss the end-of-year tour," team doctor Craig Roberts said.
Steyn might be missing out now, but the positive side is that he will be able to have a proper rest and pre-season conditioning before starting next year's SuperRugby competition with the Sharks, hopefully in prime physical and mental state.
Sometimes an enforced break like this one can end up adding years to a player's career and, as Roberts pointed out, the Springboks are looking for another 60 Tests from the utility back and he will be a vital figure in the 2015 World Cup in England.
A third player could well leave the squad on Tuesday, with prop Coenie Oosthuizen going to see a specialist in Durban about his neck injury. Meyer rushed the versatile Oosthuizen back into the team, naming him on the bench for the Test against Australia despite the 23-year-old having played just 35 minutes for the Free State Cheetahs since injuring his neck during his Springbok debut against England in June.
Sometimes players are rushed back into action too soon and it is a credit to Roberts that he managed to convince Meyer to pull Oosthuizen from last weekend's game; the team doctor clearly has doubts that the prop has fully recovered.
"Again, we want to ensure we make the right long-term decision and I'm not happy with his neck; he still has some quite significant symptoms, especially stiffness," Roberts said.
Both the Springboks and All Blacks are coming off impressive weekend victories, setting up another titanic clash between the two great rivals at the iconic stadium in Soweto. New Zealand may have already clinched the inaugural Rugby Championship title, but there is no doubt they will be up for the game against the old enemy.
Apart from notching another victory on South African soil, they would also love to complete the year unbeaten and stretch their winning run to 16 matches dating back to the start of their triumphant World Cup campaign.
"We've won the Rugby Championship, but we've parked that and we're now focused on winning in South Africa. If you talk to the older guys, they'll tell you it's more rewarding winning here than beating the Springboks at home. The guys that have been around a while really love testing themselves against the best here; it's one of the toughest places to win," loose forward Sam Cane said on Monday.
Lock Sam Whitelock also stressed the importance of Saturday's game.
"It's really nice that we've put the trophy away, but this weekend will be a massive challenge. It would be great to start off a new competition with a clean sweep.
"Last year didn't go so well for us in Port Elizabeth and South Africa is always hard to beat at home. But that's the beauty of international rugby; you have to perform week in and week out. All you need is one game to not go well and everything can unravel very quickly," Whitelock said.
The great rivalry between the two sides will be exemplified in the tremendous physicality of Saturday's Test, with the Dunedin match two weekends ago being widely proclaimed as a coming-of-age performance by the youthful Springbok pack.
"The Dunedin game was a typical All Blacks/Springboks Test, with massive body collisions. It was quite tight and it took a while for either side to win any dominance. I'm sure it will be the case again this week and the body will take a bit of a hammering," Whitelock said.
The Springboks are obviously not going to make the same mistake that Argentina did in trying to match the expansive, fast-paced game of the All Blacks.
"Playing at home, there's always more pressure to run the ball, but that's what New Zealand likes because it gives them turnovers and they punish you. You will never beat New Zealand at their own game, you'll never out-run them. You have to put pressure on them, especially at the breakdown, in defence and with your kicking game," Meyer said.
The Springboks are well positioned to do this if they can produce a repeat performance of their Loftus Versfeld heroics against the Wallabies.
For all the elation of the five tries scored, it was a top-class defensive effort in the trenches that set up a morale-boosting win.
"It was a good performance, definitely the most satisfying of the year, and our defence was also the best it's been the whole year. We made 178 tackles compared to their 109, and we had a 96% completion rate, we only missed seven tackles. Plus we only had 45% possession," Meyer said.
A win over the in-form world champions would ensure Meyer gets a positive review after his first year in charge. DM
Photo: South Africa's captain Jean de Villiers (L) is challenged by Australia's Wallabies' Radike Samo (2nd L) and Digby Ioane (C) during their Rugby Championship test match in Pretoria, September 29 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko